Thursday, September 23, 2010

Aaron Sorkin's Worthwhile (And Neglected) Endeavor: Sports Night Might Be Short, But It's Perfect!

The Good: Funny, Heartwarming, Great Acting, Wonderful Characters, Great Stories, Originality! Now with decent DVD bonus features!
The Bad: Short-lived.
The Basics: An amazing series that follows the exploits of professionals in the television industry as the love and grow.

It's a rare thing when pretty much every critic in the world agrees on the merit of a television show. But the truth is, the universal praise Sports Night received in its two-year run on ABC was just that, universal. And fans of this show were a remarkable thing: we rallied to it EVERY week and tried to convince those who had not seen the series to tune in. It's too bad not so many people did. I blame ABC (who took the show off EVERY time sweeps came around) and Aaron Sorkin, the show's creator.

Why do I blame Sorkin? The title. Sports Night killed this show even quicker than ABC. Why? I hate sports, so do a lot of other people. This show has nothing to do with sports. While it has everything to do with a show about sports, Sports Night is NOT about sports, it never was and it never would be. The problem is, one of the audiences that would have appreciated this series quite a bit was turned off just by the name. I speak of women. This is a show that, among other things, illustrates the power, ingenuity and greatness of women. Unfortunately, so many women were turned off by the title that feminist organizations failed to rally to keep the show on the air.

So, what is this great show that has nothing to do with sports?

Sports Night follows the lives of six individuals who are working on a late-night cable sports show called "Sports Night." In the course of the series, it follows their triumphs and emotional entanglements as they bring their lives to the office. The characters include:

Casey McCall, the lead anchor of "Sports Night." The series opens with Casey undergoing the final stages of a messy divorce to a heinous woman named Lisa who has basically emasculated the anchor. As the series progresses, he opens up to loving again and finds himself attracted to Dana.

Dan Rydel, the other anchor of "Sports Night." Dan is a standup, emotionally connected guy who has several issues. Rather rapidly, we learn that Dan had a brother who died and Dan blames himself for it. As Dan progresses, he falls in love with a woman who claims to be divorced and ends up in therapy. He is the emotional soul of "Sports Night."

Dana Whittaker, the producer of "Sports Night." She is an easily frazzled, woman in charge who is in command of "Sports Night," but completely lost in her social life. Her arc follows an engagement that goes bad to her opening up to Casey as a partner and ultimately losing what she wants most.

Isaac Jaffe, the managing editor of "Sports Night." He's a respected man who tries to protect the show from the network that seeks to cancel the show constantly. He's a man of great dignity and integrity. Isaac has a stroke which cripples him and puts the show in jeopardy.

Natalie Hurley, the senior associate producer. She's a flighty, kind young woman who is very emotional and very loyal to Dana, Isaac and the show. She's ambitious and absent-minded.

Jeremy Goodwin, an associate producer. In the first episode, this genius is brought on board by Natalie to help keep facts straight and keep the show running better. He's an analytical geek who is most comfortable being a sports genius and his love for Natalie grows and changes throughout the series.

The characters undergo a good number of adventures, such as Casey trying to demonstrate something to his son's class, Dan learns the consequences of singing "happy birthday" on the air, Dana discovers the joys of removing her panties while eating dinner in a restaurant, Isaac stands up for his morals, Natalie is assaulted by a football player and Jeremy deals with his parents divorce.

The hallmark of Sports Night is the fast-paced dialog. People on the show speak at the speed of normal conversation and as a result, it's often difficult for the casual viewer to keep up. Sports Night is definitely a show to sit down and watch, not just for use as background noise. But the show writes with intelligence and this is not the typical, idiotic sitcom that we're stuck seeing most times.

Sports Night is known for defying the typical pretenses of a situation comedy. The first is that Aaron Sorkin fought hard to have the laugh track removed from the series and for the second season he succeeded. Many people cite that it takes on serious issues in addition to trying to be funny, but the truth is, this is a very funny show. A lot of the humor hinges on the speed of the dialog so something like,
"Dana, did I say 'a neighborhood park all covered with cheese?'"
"There's a consensus yes." . . .
"Let me fix it when we come back." . . .
"Are we sure it's wrong? Are we sure the park isn't all covered with cheese?"
might not translate quite so well to the page. But it does have quite a bit of humor and it's a worthwhile series.

But more than anything, this is an intelligent comedy that respects its audience. It's funny and heartwarming and it is about people who make decisions and live with the consequences of them. People in this series grow and love and get hurt. This is a drama with humor.

The DVD set of Sports Night is a great way to go . . . finally. Following on a lackluster original release, Shout! Factory as released the Tenth Anniversary Set. In this DVD set, viewers get the whole series in one fell swoop. In addition to scenes that have been added back into the show from the original release, there are other bonus features. For restored scenes, there are several scenes on the last disc's "The Local Weather." I still haven't figured out what was cut out of the episode to incorporate the new scenes. There are also new commentary tracks on eight of the episodes, as well as featurettes on the making of the show. There is also a gag reel for each season, which is fun as well.

Even without the scenes that have clearly been deleted to keep each episode 21 minutes, this is a perfect series. It's wonderful and intelligent, the dialog is witty and funny and worthwhile. The worst aspect of the failure of Sports Night to endure on television is that writer Aaron Sorkin recycled important character and plot events into his other show The West Wing. You know that great speech Sam Seaborn gives about his father cheating on his mother? If you thought it was clever, see it done the first time when it was original in "The Sword of Orion" when Jeremy undergoes the same problem.

Sports Night is an amazing series and it has several episodes that are completely perfect, like "Shoe Money Tonight" where the gang plays poker for a night, "The Sword of Orion" where Jeremy learns his father is having an affair, the second season premiere "Special Powers" wherein various characters reunite, and "The Giants Win the Pennant, The Giants Win the Pennant" where Dana and Casey's near-relationship comes to a heartwrenching conclusion.

Well worth the money for anyone who likes an intelligent television series.

For other television program reviews, please check out my takes on:
30 Rock Season 1
Lost The Complete Series


For other television reviews, please check out the index page!

© 2010, 2008, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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